We were at the pool. My daughter was in the shallow end diving for “sinky toys,” while Amy and I watched. At first, we were the only ones at the pool, but at some point, a woman with two young boys entered the pool area. The youngest boy strutted right over to the shallow end, where my daughter was swimming. She stopped and turned to face him, and the two kids stared each other down, sizing each other up. After the staring contest ended, the little boy climbed into the pool, swam to the wall, and focused his attention on me.
“Who’s her mommy?” the little boy asked, pointing at my daughter. It’s not the first time we’ve gotten this question. I did, however, find it curious that this was his first question.
“We both are,” I answered. “I’m her mommy, and she’s her other mommy.” I pointed to Amy as I said this.
The boy made a confused expression. “You can’t have two mommies!” he said.
What rock has he been living under? I thought to myself. I smile and said, “Some kids have a mommy and a daddy. Some have two mommies, and some have two daddies. Some have just a mommy, or just a daddy.” I could have kept going, but a little voice in my mind said, Keep it simple.
Now the boy looked thoroughly confused. “But two girls can’t get married!” he said definitively.
Before I could respond to that statement, his mother, who was sitting at the far end of the pool, yelled, “ALL RIGHT!!! THAT’S ENOUGH!!!” And that effectively put the kibosh on any further questions.
My guess is that this intervention took place because the boy’s mother assumed I was feeling uncomfortable, and she didn’t want me to feel that way. In fact, I wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable. I didn’t mind answering his questions, and I didn’t mind holding the space for him to digest this new reality and make sense of it. But I have to say, I felt VERY uncomfortable after his mother told him to knock it off. Because whether she intended this or not, the message that he got was, It’s not okay to talk about this.
In our house, we frequently talk about different kinds of families – and different kinds of people. We don’t do this in a preachy-teachy way; these subjects come up naturally, probably because of who we are and who we know. She knows people with two mommies, two daddies, three mommies and a daddy (this configuration involving a coming-out, a subsequent divorce, and both parents re-partnering), four mommies (again, through separation and re-partnering). She knows that children can have more than two parents – and not just because of divorce. She knows what it means to be adopted – by any type of family. I don’t think she knows the word “bisexual” yet, but she knows that sometimes people can be attracted to boys and girls – not just one or the other exclusively. She knows what it means to be transgender. She understands what the word “intersex” means. To her, none of this is confusing – it’s just reality.
Later that evening, as I was reflecting on the incident at the pool, it occurred to me that I might be the one who’s been living under a rock. Even though I’m very book-smart, I can be very naive – and I realized that I’ve naively assumed that, in this day and age, parents are increasingly talking to their kids about sexual orientation and gender. But that afternoon at the pool, my proverbial bubble that I’ve been living in was burst, and I witnessed just how thoroughly confusing the idea of two mommies or two daddies is to many children.
In some ways, I understand. Many parents might not know how to talk about these topics, especially with younger children. Shielded by heterosexual privilege, parents who are heterosexual and who are raising heterosexual, gender-normative kids may see no need to talk about it; the fact that the only research I could find that investigated how parents talk to their kids about sexual orientation involved lesbian moms (or gay kids) attests to this. Probably a lot of parents, somewhere along the line, internalized the message that the woman at the pool conveyed to her son: It’s not okay to talk about it.
The it’s not okay to talk about it message runs deep in our cultural psyche, I think. When the film It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in Schools was released back in the late 1990s, the controversy that ensued was polarized and fiery. On the one hand, the film galvanized parents and educators to start conversations with children about lesbian and gay people – and it provided them with the tools to do so effectively. On the other hand, the film was relentlessly criticized by the anti-gay religious right. Their argument didn’t stop at it’s not okay to talk about it – rather, their message was: It is NOT SAFE to talk about it.
Here’s what Karen Jo Gounaud, the then-president of an organization called “Family Friendly Libraries,” wrote in her review of the film, which was subsequently published on NARTH’s website:
There’s a sophisticated new arrow in the gay activists’ quiver: a polished, well-produced video called It’s Elementary. . . .
“Indoctrination” is not too strong a word to describe what was really going on with those classroom activities. . . .
We must protect children from educational materials that contradict the historic truths about family which are rooted in America’s Judeo-Christian foundation. The survival of the family needs all the armor of truth we can supply. That truth is elementary, and it is imperative. There’s no time to waste. Let’s get together and get it done (emphasis mine).
As wacko as these statements are, they’ve effectively scared people into silence. Although a handful of websites exist that give tips on how to talk to kids about sexual orientation, no books have been written on this topic. None. No psychological studies exist (at least that I could find) that document the effects of educating children about sexual orientation – either in schools or at home. And attempts to provide that education for kids (either through films like It’s Elementary, or, more recently, through California’s FAIR Education Act) are often met with powerful resistance. This education just isn’t happening – at least not on a widespread level.
All of us need to be talking to our kids, in age-appropriate ways, about sexual orientation. And gender. And families – of all types. And sexuality. And not just if your family falls under the “sexual and gender minority” umbrella – all families should be having these conversations with their kids. Watching the re-release of It’s Elementary (titled It’s Still Elementary) to get tips on what to say is a good start. Although simplistic, Mental Health America has a page titled, “How to Talk to Kids about Sexual Orientation and Prejudice,” and it gives advice for different age ranges. Be honest. Keep it simple. Answer questions directly. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so – and then find out.
As it turns out, the little boy at the pool probably didn’t care much about our daughter’s family situation. He was after her sinky toys.